In our last blog, I talked a bit about our fish collections which occur every summer. Fish collections are a tremendous opportunity to compare and contrast different creeks while learning about and experiencing the physical and biological characteristics of those creeks, all while working with our awesome volunteers. By looking at the habitat and the fish that live there we can compare our results against known high quality streams for an indication of the overall health of the stream. Here is a sampling of what we experienced and learned this summer.
Most of our collections this year were in the northeast part of the state in the Ozark Highlands ecoregion. It was interesting to experience the similarities and differences between each of the creeks. Each has clear water over cobble/gravel bottoms and the native streamside vegetation is similar. Some of the creeks are in a rural setting and others are urban.
For the collection at Spring Creek in Cherokee County, the entire Blue Thumb staff met at the home of Blue Thumb volunteer Kay Frank, and were joined by volunteers Cath and Newell McCarty, who currently monitor the site, as well as Sherry Davis and her daughter, Silver. This stretch of Spring Creek is gorgeous, winding back through the woods for the 400 meters of our habitat assessment. It’s an area made up largely of rock and gravel, where the loose rocks of the creek banks slide down into the water when you step on them, indicating it has been newly deposited. Much of the gravel appears to be coming from upstream clearing that allows bank erosion during flood events. Even with the gravel, this site is a place with some wide, deep pools which would make fantastic swimming holes. For our purposes, they were great places to pull a seine across the clear water, collecting fish. We found many types, including madtoms, darters, sunfish, shiners and a large Northern hogsucker.
It was quite a different experience the next day at Town Branch Creek in downtown Tahlequah. It was also a much cooler day, cloudy with a light rain falling and a chill breeze from time to time. Kim, Candice, Jeri and her grandson, and I were met by Blue Thumb volunteer Jahna Hill. Our group headed up the fairly narrow creek which at times wound its way through dense vegetation with a thick canopy overhead. It occasionally felt very wild and nothing like being in the middle of an urban area. The creek remained fairly shallow for stretches although we did encounter some deep pools farther upstream, perfect spots for seining and the spots where we had some of the best fish collecting success.
There’s another monitoring site on Town Branch Creek, located at Basin Street, and it was there we met again the next day, though this time it was just Kim, Candice, Jahna and me. This end of Town Branch Creek seemed wider and shallower than the farther upstream section we encountered the day before. Here, the creek bottom was mostly gravel, sand and rocks and the banks were often eroded, with very little riparian area for quite a way on one side. Kim and Candice noted that the creek appeared much different than it did during a previous collection about five years ago, now much shallower and featuring more bedrock, likely due to flooding and being washed out. The gravel has filled in most of the pools and the number of riffles required a different fish collection technique of kicking through the riffles rather than pulling a seine.
Collecting on Ross Branch in Tahlequah the following week allowed us to see how another corner of the city is impacting a creek. Ross Branch runs through a highly developed area with a number of commercial properties along its bank. There’s a facility that makes cement as well as a Farmer’s Co-Op. We encountered a number of sights and smells that may have been the direct result of activities happening at those places. This creek also featured quite a few other impacts from human use, including signs that lots of people hang along parts of the creek. On the other hand, we did find a number of fish, including the surprising find of a small largemouth bass right under a roadway bridge over the creek. There was also a northern hogsucker which was observed but unfortunately never caught in the net.
A day later, we were in a very different spot, at Tyner Creek in Adair County. This creek is off the beaten path and getting there takes a trip quite a way off the main road. It’s located adjacent to land where restoration projects have been happening to help protect a landowner from losing more of his property to erosion. For this collection, it was just us Blue Thumb staffers up and down the creek doing the habitat assessment and fish collection. It was an opportunity for us to enjoy a tranquil, peaceful and beautiful place as we encountered many fish species, including banded sculpins, madtoms, darters, creek chubs, cardinal shiners, a northern hogsucker and lots and lots of dace. We also got to share a moment of fun and relaxation when the collection was over, sitting in the cold, crystal clear waters of a lovely rural creek.
The next fish collection was in a different part of the state, a different ecoregion, and quite different in terms of the creek’s habitat, surroundings and physical characteristics. That’s to be expected when you go from a rural corner in far northeast Oklahoma to the south-central part of the state and the much more developed town of Sulphur. Rock Creek runs right through Sulphur, quite close to downtown, but also runs through the Chickasaw National Recreation Area, giving it a wide variety of influences. Our collection occurred along the stretch through town, where the creek bottom was extremely sandy and the habitat considerably different than in past years. Kim and Candice both noted how much shallower the water was, now ankle or knee deep where it used to be chest deep. It will be interesting to see the final results of our collection and compare it with previous collections at the same site to see if the sediment has changed the quality of the stream. It was another great opportunity to see the wide variety of creeks we have here in Oklahoma and how they can be so different from each other and even from the way they were just a few years ago.